Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Awake In Mumbai

I pretty much never go on the internet while we travel, I'm a firm believer in being in the moment. It is one of the reasons to travel. What would be the point if you are checking your email and your Facebook all the time? Might as well stay at home.

But here I am awake at 4:30 in the morning in Mumbai. I keep waking up super early, not from jet-lag but from some pretty crazy dreaming caused by the malaria meds - a known side effect but one that has not been an issue for me in the past. We're all (the wife, the kid, and me) also a little stir crazy from spending the entire day yesterday at the hotel due to a serious monsoon rain storm that shut down schools and government building, and cancelled a meeting my wife was supposed to be attending.

And we have our laptop with us since this is a work trip for my wife, so as long as I'm awake I might as well use my sputtering old blog (which I keep telling myself I'll be better about posting) to do a little bit of journaling. I normally like to try to have a notebook for writing about our trip but since this trip came up so quick I didn't plan ahead.

So here are some thoughts from our first four days in India, all of which has been in Mumbai so far.

Mumbai is an insane city. I've been in some pretty nutty cities in Asia but the traffic insanity and the crush of people here takes the cake over other places I've seen. This place is in serious need of a metro system about three times the size of New York's, but right now they've got one about the size of Seattle's. Which just doesn't cut it.

This place smells pretty much how I expected it to, spices mixed with sweat.

Mumbai seems like Gandhi's worst fucking nightmare about India's future come true. It's hard to imagine that this place could be anything less like what he wanted for India.

I'm reminded of how much I don't like staying in luxury hotels. Since the accommodations are arranged and paid for by the company that brought my wife over we are staying at a high-end, 5-star hotel by the airport (which also really sucks for sightseeing, needing to go really far in that traffic to see the stuff one comes to Mumbai to see). First and foremost I really don't like workers who are forced to act so subservient to me. I find the whole thing very embarrassing, especially when visiting a country of brown people who have a history of being oppressed by white people like myself. It is just so unnerving. I know some people (assholes) like being waited on hand and foot like that but since I am a Socialist at heart I hate everything about it. I'd prefer to unfold my own napkin and put it on my lap myself, I'm not a 2-year-old. I've actually been asked to feel the beer bottle before they pour to make sure the temperature is to my liking.

And about those beers. Another thing to hate about luxury hotels is the cost of everything. In a country that is super cheap we have paid about US$100 for dinner for the three of us, which we've been left with no choice since we got stuck in the hotel because of the monsoon rain. And the small bottle of Kingfisher (India's biggest local brew) runs about US$8. Seriously, eight freaking dollars. I get a big bottle back at home in a nice Indian restaurant and I pay less than that. I came to India to be overcharged for Kingfisher.

I doubt all that extra money is going to the staff. So I'm tipping well, likely better than most people who stay here. Which is only making some of the staff fawn over us even more, exactly the opposite of what I want. Especially the waiter at the pool, where my daughter wants to spend all of her time. Super nice guy but totally hovers when we are there. I really want to pull him aside and say that I'll tip him even more if he stops kissing my ass.

Oh well, not a normal trip for us in that sense. But we have managed to get out a few times and find some places on our own, eat in restaurants without any other tourists in them.

The food has been just as awesome as I'd hoped. Probably even better than I imagined.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Song Of The Day - John Barleycorn Must Live

One of my favorite authors is Nick Hornby and one of his brilliant pieces of work is a collection of essays called, "Songbook." Hornby picks favorite tracks and writes about them in a brilliant, funny and sometimes incredibly poignant way. The stories go off in various directions with the only rule seemingly being that at the beginning of his thought process is that particular song. Cool idea. So in the best tradition of mediocre non-writers stealing the ideas of far superior writers I thought it would be cool to do this sometimes. So with apologies to Nick Hornby...

On October 1st, 1994 my buddy Trevor stopped by the pizza place where we both worked - he was off - and asked me if I wanted to hit the Robyn Hitchcock show with him that night. I had moved to Seattle after college about four months earlier and Trevor was pretty much my first friend there. We had already bonded over a shared love of the indie music (though Trevor's knowledge far surpassed mine and he was a guitar player himself who knew the Seattle scene really well). He was one of the rare people I met that actually knew who Robyn Hitchcock was and he was also a big fan. He had an extra ticket Robyn's show that night at the Backstage, which I would discover that night was the best music venue in Seattle (sadly, no longer there).

This would be the first of many shows that Trevor and I would see together while I lived in Seattle, he would turn out to be my favorite concert buddy.

When we got to the Backstage we went straight to the bar and got some beer. Trevor asked the bartender who was opening and the guy told him, "Scott McCoy". I asked who an Trevor said it was the guy from Young Fresh Fellows. I'm pretty sure I said something like, Oh, cool. Yeah" but in reality had no fucking idea what he was talking about. But being 24-years-old I did not want to expose my relative lack of indie rock knowledge.

I would learn later, of course, that his name was spelled Scott McCaughey and just sounds like McCoy. He was great that night in his short set he did with Ken Stringfellow from The Posies, but I mostly remember the awesome Robyn Hitchcock show. I had seen him before but it was with his band in bigger venues opening for REM. This was my first Robyn show in a small club with him on stage by himself, I didn't know then I would see him dozens of times over the next 20 years; by himself, with a band, with violinist Deni Bonet, with Peter Buck from REM, with Scott McCaughey, and many other combinations.

Over the next few years going to concerts in Seattle I would see McCaughey all the time playing with other musicians I had gone to see, including when he became REM's permanent sideman on the Monster tour.

One year I got a job at a law firm - one of those great 90s slacker jobs that were so abundant in Seattle where I didn't have to actually do that much work. My favorite co-worker at the firm was this great guy named Gary. Gary was around 40 while I was in my late 20s and he had a wife and kids. I would discover that Gary was Scott's best friend since high school and that they had once been in a band together. I believe they also followed Mott the Hoople on tour through Europe.

Gary would be something of  role model for me during my time there. First of all he loved music, and despite being over 30-years-old he still loved hearing new bands. He also took his kids to concerts, introduced them to cool stuff, but also didn't begrudge them for liking some pop stuff he couldn't stand listening to. Gary showed me you could actually grow up without becoming "old." He was the first parent I ever met that made me think that it was possible to breed without becoming an asshole or a boring shithead. He had a lot to do with my thinking that having a kid might not be so bad after all. He is exactly the kind of dad I'm trying to be today

Through these years I had actually become more familiar with Scott McCaughey's music and had become quite a fan, especially of his project The Minus 5. I didn't realize it at the time, but that first show I saw him play back in 1994 was pretty much an early version of The Minus 5 since Ken Stringfellow and Peter Buck were his main collaborators on it back when he put together the first version of the group, which has had a rotating cast of characters through the years (including all the members of Wilco and The Decemberists as well as Robyn Hitchcock at various times, among many others).

Seems to me that people love to work with Scott for several reasons. It looks like he can play just about any instrument well, which is a great guy to have in your band. He also seems to have an insane musical knowledge when it comes to the history of rock-and-roll. Having talked to him a few times after shows over the years, I also know he's a hell of a nice guy. (I'm sure the number of times I've dropped Gary's name to him over the years  - "Hey remember me, I used to work with Gary in Seattle..." - has gotten a little annoying but he is always very cool to me).

And most of all, the guy knows how to craft a song. Seriously, how he has not become a bigger star has always surprised me since he can craft a pop song like nobody's business. Listen to John Barleycorn Must Live (off the excellent record Let the War Against Music Begin) and you are listening to a pop gem as good as anything The Beatles put out. Catchy, with lots of cool instrumentation going on underneath, it is also both an homage to music history - John Barleycorn being a British folk tune famously recorded by Traffic in 1970 - and a kind of redemption for the poor Barleycorn, who in the original song, "...should die." Scott McCaughey just decided that somebody must finally stand up for poor John Barleycorn, so this catchy tune is the result.

Scott's sense of humor as resulted in other beautiful pop numbers like With a Gun and also serious rockers like Aw, Shit Man. The man can make a song that makes you think of The Monkees and then turn right around and rock out with his cock out.

People who know how much I go see live music will ask me who I've seen the most and my answer is always, Robyn Hitchcock, Billy Bragg, and Jeff Tweedy/Wilco; all of whom I've seen between 40-60 each, with Robyn being the most for sure. But it dawned on me a couple years ago that I've probably seen Scott McCaughey almost as much as any of them, maybe even more than Billy Bragg or Tweedy. I've seen him play with Tweedy. I've seen him many times with Robyn Hitchcock - especially after he was a part of Robyn's backing band for a few years. I've seen The Minus 5. I've seen him in Tuatara, a kind of Seattle indie super group. I've seen him play with Peter Buck and Alejandro Escovedo. And for the past few years I've been loving seeing Scott play in The Baseball Project, a band composed of him with Steve Wynn (ex-Dream Syndicate) as the songwriters and guitarists along with Peter Buck and Mike Mills from REM, and excellent drummer Linda Pitmon. And as the name suggest, all the songs are about baseball.

Scott McCaughey has very stealthily become a major part of the soundtrack of my life. There are many artist/albums/songs that I think of when looking back on parts of my history and without my noticing Scott McCaughey became one of the dominant artists on that list. I really didn't even realize it until recently. On Record Store Day this year my number one target was The Minus 5 record called Scott the Hoople in the Dungeon of Horror, a sprawling, ambitious 5-LP boxed set of all new music with each disc playing on a theme (one of them being all songs about the band The Monkees, including a 9-minute track called Michael Nesmith, which just may be Scott McCaughey's American Pie and it is just as good if not better).

One of my favorite musicians, even though I didn't know that for years. Makes me think of seeing shows with Trevor, hanging out with the coolest dad I've ever known - which in turn reminds me that I'm happy I married my wife and had our daughter, and how much I love a well-crafted song and a great night out in a club watching great musicians.

Scott also reminds me that life is good.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Song Of The Day - Jeremy

One of my favorite authors is Nick Hornby and one of his brilliant pieces of work is a collection of essays called, "Songbook." Hornby picks favorite tracks and writes about them in a brilliant, funny and sometimes incredibly poignant way. The stories go off in various directions with the only rule seemingly being that at the beginning of his thought process is that particular song. Cool idea. So in the best tradition of mediocre non-writers stealing the ideas of far superior writers I thought it would be cool to do this sometimes. So with apologies to Nick Hornby...

It would seem to totally destroy any indie cred that I think I have by starting this idea with the biggest hit from one of the most popular bands of the last 25 years. Or at the very least just fall in to the stereotype of the white Gen-Xer that I am. So be it.

Pearl Jam's Ten was released the month I turned 21. I think I first became aware of them from the video for "Evenflow" which was a song that blew my mind away and I was an instant fan. But hearing "Jeremy" the first time, well, that was a revelation. Still roiling with teen angst at 21 it was a song that seemed written for me, not that I'm unique in feeling that way about that song.

What was scary was how much I related to Jeremy. I really do believe that if not for just a few minor deviations in my life I could have found myself splattering my brains all over the wall in front of a classroom full of my fellow high school students. I think what maybe stopped me the most was not wanting to give those fuckwads the satisfaction.

My most vivid memory of the song, the thing I think about the most whenever I hear it today, comes from a few years later - in 1994, during my last semester of college.

I was a theatre major approaching graduation. My degree would be in directing but I was also an actor. A mediocre actor to be sure, but I sometimes nailed it and was actually really good with the exact right role, such as Lee Harvey Oswald in Sondheim's Assassins. My final role in college would be that of the troubled teen Hank in Marvin's Room, a part scarily tailor made for me, at least in my mind.

When you study theatre in college you end up being encouraged to explore your craft in various ways. You inevitably will have a stage movement teacher who tells you to find your "animal essence." As in, "If Hank were an animal, what animal would he be?" You get the idea.

I could never get in to the whole animal character thing, though I don't dismiss it - I knew some great actors who swore by it. But what I almost always did have - music geek that I was even then - was a song for my character. And Hank's song was "Jeremy."

I had been struggling with the character during rehearsals, as one will do when taking on such a meaty role. One beautiful spring day I took off from my off-campus apartment and walked by myself with my CD Walkman. I set out that day to walk around as a 17-year-old (I was 23 by this time) and just get in the mind of Hank.

I was listening to Ten that day, of course. Over and over. This was before the days of being able to make mix CDs on your computer (and before I even had a computer or even knew what email was) so what you had in your CD Walkman was going to be an album.

As I walked around Macomb, IL trying to find my inner teenager I came across a pink golf ball on the grass somewhere. No shit, a pink golf ball. Who uses pink golf balls? It made me think about my late friend Lori and I was finding myself heading in the direction of the cemetery where she was buried.

Lori was a freshman theatre major the previous year but she was not like any other freshman. Lori grew up in town and had been involved in the theatre program from a young age, when I met her several years earlier she worked part time in the costume shop. About a year before this walkabout she was killed when she swerved in front of an oncoming semi on a road outside of town.

Lori's favorite color was pink. Finding the golf ball made me think about going to her grave. I had been at her funeral the year before and was not able to hold it together. My grief was too much and I was a basket case, so I didn't go to the burial afterwards.

I found her spot at the cemetery and sat at her gravestone. There was a metal frame on her headstone with a hinge at the top. I lifted it to find a picture of a smiling, happy Lori looking at me. I lost my shit once again, with Jeremy playing in my ear.

I left the pink golf ball at her grave that day. A gift for the sunniest, happy person I ever knew. Cruelly taken from us well before her time.

Pearl Jam wailing in my ear, I walked back to my off-campus apartment knowing I was ready to play what would be the greatest role of my life.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

What The West Is Good At Exporting

I have been lucky enough to travel to a decent number of places in my life, especially in recent years. I love to travel. There is nothing else I love as much as traveling and travel planning, save for maybe going to concerts. Like a lot of Americans I love to travel to Europe because, let's face it, Europe is by and large so much cooler than America. But I also love to travel to countries outside the "Western" world.

My wife and I have traveled to SE Asia twice now, most recently this last autumn when we took our 5-year-old daughter with us. It is an amazing part of the world to see, beautiful with a rich history and very lovely people. It is not like we are the only travelers who know this secret. This part of the world sees an amazing amount of tourism now. You walk down the streets of Hanoi, Luang Prabang, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, among other cities, and you will be surrounded by a lot of other white people. Generally this is really god for the local economies as we bring a lot of money with us to spend in restaurants, on hotels, museums, and gift shops.

But a lot of Westerners bring something else with them besides their money: Asshole-ish behavior. Ass-hattery may be our biggest export from america and Europe.

Siem Reap, Cambodia is one of the most special places on Earth. It is the closest town to the wonders of Angkor Wat and a nice little city to hang out at night. It is also overrun with tourists. It really was amazing to see the difference in the six years between our trips there. The number of hotels they have there now was shocking. So was the number of tourists walking the streets and partying in the bars at night. Not just the numbers are what's shocking, but the number of hipsters. It appears Siem Reap has become an "it" location for the young hip people from The U.S. and Europe. This wouldn't really be a problem if they didn't bring their asshole behavior with them.

An example: We were in an ice cream and coffee shop in downtown Siem Reap around an area called Pub Street and "The Passage" where a ton of restaurants are located. These are all places that are generally cheap for us but your average Cambodian cannot afford to eat or drink at them. All of central Siem Reap caters to tourists. There were a couple of very Eurotrash-looking Italians who ordered espressos. When they got thir drinks they were not exactly what the guys wanted and they got very angry with the young girl serving them. They basically yelled at her that this was "not what I wanted" and to "take it away."

They acted like a real couple of dicks. Both parties are speaking a second language to their own, English. The fact that you can travel to a place like this and not have to try to converse in Khmer is really convenient and things will be misunderstood now and then. Is it really necessary to act like an ass about it? This is vacation after all.

I think travelers need to show a little more deference and patience when in a country where the main language is one you don't know. I'm a guest places like Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam yet somehow I am able to do all my business with hotels and restaurants in English, my language not theirs. I should appreciate the generosity of that. We had a mistake happen in a restaurant in Luang Prabang. My daughter wanted basil on her pizza and it took a while to get the waiter to understand it. When the pizza came it had black olives on it instead. We didn't send it back and my daughter ate it, though we picked off the olives. It just is not a big deal. I'm in a country where I don't speak their language which means the language barrier is my problem and not theirs. I'm really happy about my kid learning that lesson that day. She's already a more mature and respectful traveler than some of the people we came across.

Like this middle-aged English woman in Hoi An, Vietnam.She ordered a caffe macchiato at a nice restaurant we were having lunch. she got all pissy with the waiter when her drink came because it was a shot of espresso with just a dollop of foamed milk. You know, a caffe macchiato. She then lectures the waiter on what a macchiato is, telling him there should be a lot of milk in it, that it is a big drink. She makes him take it back to fix it. And the very stupidest thing about this is that she was wrong! She learned her coffee lingo from Starbucks back at home, she is the one who didn't know what she was ordering.

After the waiter left to "fix" the "mistake" the tone in her voice to her travel companions was one that said, "stupid foreigner," not realizing she was the stupid foreigner, not the waiter who brought her the right drink in his home country.

The rudeness you can see sometimes toward people whose country in which we are guests is stupefying. So is the inappropriate behavior.

In Siem Reap we would see a lot of girls and guys walking around in short-shorts and tank top shirts Now, if you've done even the most minimal bit of research on Cambodia - like 3 minutes worth - you know that they are culturally a very conservative people who dress modestly and that revealing clothing is a big no-no. But apparently hipsters can't be bothered with learning anything about where they are going. Even worse, they would go to Angkor Wat that way. Sacred holy ground. Signs that actually tell you that kind of dress is inappropriate.

I'm not one to hold a lot of respect for religion, certainly. But a traveler must have respect for the people whose country they are visiting. Their culture is still theirs no matter how much money we spend there. The problem with some of these Western travelers is they treat these countries as if they are in the SE Asia section of Epcot Center at Disney World and not in a country where people live, work, pray, raise families, and try to live a life. If your only goal is to party and get drunk in bars with a bunch of other white people then what the hell is the point? I can get drunk with fellow American at home.

They not only embarrass themselves, they also embarrass those of us that try to travel in a way that honors and respects the place we are visiting.

This is not to say I don't think people should go to places like this or that they are ruined for travel. Despite its crazy crowds, the asshole-ish behavior of some, and the inevitable scams that go along with crowds of richer people being in a poor country, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and the rest of the countries in SE Asia are truly wonderful places and I'm that much richer for having visited. I would encourage everyone to go there some time in your life.

But don't bring your asshole behavior with you.

Monday, February 10, 2014

My How Things Change

When I was living in Seattle in the 90s for a while I resided at the vintage but rundown Jensonia Apartments on First Hill right next to Freeway Park and the backside of the structure that created the Freeway Park parking garage. On a block forgotten about, blocked in by an overpass, almost butted up against the back wall of the convention center and left for dead in the urban planning of the 60s and early 70s that all started with carving a freeway through downtown Seattle.

By the time I lived there in the 90s you can imagine what it was likely to had become. A jewel of the 20s (I think) was a shell of its former self, sitting at the bottom of a dead end hill and next to the dark alley created by the wall of the parking garage.

The tenants living there were an odd mix of, well, odd. Druggies, working-class stiffs who sat out on the stoop every day drinking beer or whiskey, transients who hadn't really figured out what there life was supposed to be about at that point. I suppose thinking in retrospect I was one of the latter. Though at the time I likely saw myself as the starving undiscovered artist. I mean hey, I was working in the theatre. For no money, so I also had a day job. I needed cheap rent and the Jensonia - with its stained hallways, ripped and stained carpets, odd smells in the hall, temperamental ancient elevator, cobweb-filled laundry basement - was perfect for me. $425/month to live, by myself with about 600 square feet, a short walk through Freeway Park to my downtown office job. I could actually light a cigarette as I was walking out of the building and be at the entrance to my office building before I finished the smoke. And I had a Murphy bed in the place. I was on top of the world.

It's odd how you measure your life at 27.

A while back I wrote a long four-part story about my time at the Jensonia Apartments (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4) - which before I left would become the Jensonia Hotel, officially a transient building with weekly rates and the eventual drug raids and at least one O.D. death and one murder.

Yes, a murder. Right in the lobby of the building. And we knew the guy. Drunk Bob. Sat on the stoop and drank cheap beer and got surly under his middle-aged beard.. Had a shit blue car - from I think the 70s - full of tools. And now he's dead on the lobby floor apparently from a single punch to the face.

Thing is, even as creepy as it was becoming at the Jensonia I loved living there (I think that four-part story linked above represents some of my better writing, certainly some of my least cynical).

Fast forward from 1997/98 to 2014 and this is my wife and I when we look for a place today:

"No, they don't have in-unit washer/dryer, just a laundry room three feet away"
"Off the list"
"The second bathroom is only a half bathroom"
"Nix that garbage"
"This one has three bed/two bath but is only about 1400 square feet"
"Scratch that one off"
"No bike storage in this one"
"Those monsters!"

I'm not saying life was easier when I was poor. Looking back I think my life may have been in danger while I was still in the Jensonia during my final months there. So it was good I got out. Especially good since a few years later it burned down.

But decisions were certainly easier. I have x amount of money I can pay for rent. This is a list of places I can afford. Take first one that doesn't suck too bad. Move in after having bribed friends with pizza and Henry Weinhard's Private Reserve. Done.

And I may have had to deal with drug dealers, winos, guys strung out on smack, Schizophrenics, and all around weird people. But I never once had to have a conversation with a passive-aggressive asshole condo association president with overdeveloped sense of self-importance and pretend power.

Boy, do things change.

Some pictures of the Jensonia:

From the 1920s

 From the late 1990s, around when I lived there. Taken from the 8th Ave viaduct, not the 8th Ave that goes under the viaduct to get to the building

 And a Google street view, however recent this might be. Gone. I heard Virginia Mason will be expanding onto the site.

View Larger Map

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What I Learned From Nelson Mandela

Certainly a lot has been written about Nelson Mandela since his death by many writers better than me and also by many who knew the man personally. Obviously I didn't know him, but he affected my life in a fairly profound way. Most of it was who he was as a man, but some of it was the timing in my life of my becoming aware of him.

When I was a young teenager of about 14 or 15 I discovered the music of U2. Now, whatever one thinks of the persona that Bono would eventually take on as the pompous rock star, in the early-mid 80s he could be an inspiration to a lower-middle class white suburban American kid who wasn't really aware of the the world outside of his cul-de-sac. Hearing the War album for the first time was a life altering moment for me. I know there a lot people my age who find this ridiculous, but that is because they likely grew up with a parent or older sibling who listened to The Beatles, Dylan, Springsteen, The Who, or other such artist. I had an older brother who listened to Kansas, Foreigner, and Kiss. My mother's favorite band - to this day - is fucking Air Supply.  Up to that point in my life I thought I didn't like music.

Getting in to U2 led me to Amnesty International since the band were big supporters of the organization. I think I learned who Nelson Mandela was right after I joined Amnesty and may have even been the first political prisoner whose letter-writing campaign I joined. I don't think I knew what a political prisoner was before that, or that this thing called Apartheid existed. From what I had been taught in school, after the days of MLK (the "good" civil rights leader) and Malcolm X (the "bad" one) this kind of institutionalized racism was over.

So I learned I was wrong about that.

And it boggled my mind that someone could be put in prison for (up to this point) 23 years for trying to gain equal rights for his people, and that anyone would be OK with that. Which means I also learned because of Mandela that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were truly evil people. They called a democratic reformer a terrorist and cozied right up to the racist regime who put him in prison. This kind of evil reared its ugly head after Mandela's death with many comments from right-wingers about his "terrorist" past and supposed communist leanings. Somehow the struggle for freedom for a people that has been given no choice but to answer violence with violence in self defense equals terrorism. These would be a people who every year on the 4th of July celebrate our own forefathers decision to wage a bloody war for our own independence. For some reason violence in the name of freedom is OK for white people but not black people.

Mandela also taught me that my family is batshit crazy. As I started to discuss these issues at the dinner table I realized that my mother and my brother didn't see eye-to-eye with me on an issue that was as clear-cut as wondering whether slavery was wrong. My brother - a Reagan fanatic who still has a signed picture of that bad B-list actor on his wall - insisted, towing the Reagan line, that divestment in and sanctions against South Africa would hurt the black people more than the white people there. Arguing with him that it was the black people in that country that wanted those sanctions made no difference to him. He and Reagan knew what was better for them. And Mandela being in prison was not a big deal, he didn't consider that it was a violation of basic human rights.

My mother was worse in many ways. I remember her saying to me, "The blacks have ruined every other country in Africa, why can't we let the white people have one of them?" seriously, she really said this. She also used, along with my brother, the dreaded C word that Reagan fed them to describe Mandela - Communist.

This is when I realized that a person could have black friends and still be a racist.

I despaired that things would never change in South Africa, despite the work of activist all over the world and the pressure of international opinion.

But then it happened. Mandela, who had been in prison eight years longer than I had been alive, was finally released and change did come to South Africa.

I learned that you can still hope for a change for the better in the world. Even when the odds seem stacked against it. 27 years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement and with forced hard labor. Yet he never stopped dreaming a change could come to his country and for his people.

Hope. That's what I learned the most from a great man.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Dodging Motos in SE Asia

I was recently in SE Asia with my wife and daughter for what has become our annual international vacation. We started taking these trips with our daughter a couple of months before she turned two and she would celebrate her fifth birthday on this last one. As we were anticipating this vacation and telling people about it we were often greeted with a look shock from many people and even a "wow" every now and then at the idea that we would take a five-year-old to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Some people were impressed by us, others thought we were crazy. I think the ones who thought we were crazy didn't think we had really thought it through really well. But we had quite a bit. Before this trip our girl had been on four foreign vacations and in a total of eight countries, all in Europe but having taken a step in to Asia by being in Istanbul.

In all the traveling we've done with her she has been fantastic and easy on the flights and pretty much all aspects of the trip. Sure she gets tired and cranky on occasion but that can happen at home, too. Having done the 12-hour flight to Istanbul and back with no problem we figured we were ready to up our game with our choice of vacation destinations. And my wife, who traveled much more than me when she was younger, really wanted to get out of the Europe trend we'd been in since our daughter was born..

My wife and I had gone to this part of the world as our last trip before trying to have a kid, six years earlier, so we knew what we were getting in to. Sure SE Asia is a hectic place, but it is also so beautiful and full of wonderful people.

But there was one part of the trip that maybe confirmed our craziness for taking a five-year-old to this part of the world. They drive like lunatics over there.

It is really hard to explain to people who have never been to this part of the world just what the driving is like. If you go to cities like New York, Chicago, or Boston and think that the driving is insane there you have no idea how much worse it can be. The best description I've ever been able to come up with is imagining you are on a crowded New York City sidewalk with all the people weaving back and forth and going around each other, coming within millimeters of one another, getting out of an oncoming person's way just before you would bump in to each other. Now imagine that with everyone on cars, motorbikes, and bicycles instead of walking.

Nowhere that I've been is it any worse than Hanoi. And it got worse since we were there six years ago. Sure traffic was bad with all the motorbikes but when you got off the main thoroughfares you could usually find some breathing room on small streets like in the charming Old Quarter. Not any more. Traffic seems to be a constant flow on those small streets just like in the more urban looking parts of the city. And a lot more of the vehicles are cars (as opposed to motorbikes) now that more and more Vietnamese can afford them.

This makes crossing the street very tiring, especially when you are trying to do it with a five-year-old. We spend so much time as parents trying to train our kid the rules of crossing the street only to have to throw them out the window. I explained to her that we she had to hold our hands and when we said "go" to just start walking and don't stop for any reason. Telling her that when there are motorbikes and cars coming at us they will swerve around us. Rightly, she looked at me like I was crazy.

I had such a great memory of how charming Hanoi was when I visited before but that's been replaced by sheer hatred of the place. It is just exhausting to be there. Luckily we were only there for one day as a stopover on our way to Hoi An. We were staying away from the bigger cities on this trip and after the stay in Hanoi I knew we made the right decision. And a big reason that Hoi An was one of my favorite places - on top of the fact it is a charming town with lots to do and see - is that for several parts of the day the Old Town section is closed to motorized vehicles. The calm it creates in contrast to the chaos of the traffic is as wonderful as being in a typical European pedestrian plaza.

It is as crazy as Hanoi all over this part of the world. There is no sense that there are any rules to follow. Major roads are clearly marked with solid or broken lines to indicate a passing or no-passing zone but they are completely ignored. Drivers will pass going in to blind curves without giving it a second thought.  They will also begin an overtake even if there is oncoming traffic only 100 yards away. The right-of-way rule seems to be whoever is bigger gets their way. It is like the bully on the playground method of traffic control. For instance, there was an oncoming truck that started flashing his lights at the car we were in on a trip between Hoi An and My Son, telling our driver to make way from about 200 yards away. Except that the truck was the one that was passing and was in our lane. But if we hit him, we would lose.

This applies to pedestrians as well. No way should you assume that if crossing the street at an intersection with a stoplight that the cross traffic will stop when they have the red. You should assume they won't.

This of course was not new to us since we had been there before. We knew the traffic and driving there would be crazy, that people in these countries were nutty and aggressive drivers. But one thing did change in the time we had last been there:

They all have freaking smart phones now!

Holy shit, if you thought driving under the influence of smart phones was bad in the States...well...you ain't seen nothin'. I was biking between the beach and town in Hoi An and a guy came by me on a motorbike while casually texting, face buried in the phone, while within centimeters of me. This was a common sight, drivers texting while swerving around pedestrians and other vehicles, sometimes while driving a motorbike with their toddler child between their legs.

Probably the most bizarre/hilarious/frightening example was during our ride between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia, for which we had hired a driver to take us on the four-to-five hour trip. While our driver was in the middle of passing another car at about 60 km/h on the patchy narrow highway (I use that term lightly) with oncoming traffic in sight he decided that would be a perfect time to take a picture of the sunset happening to our left. I suppose it is nice to see someone still appreciates the beauty of his country enough to snap a photo of a nice sunset. It was a really nice sunset.

There is something about traveling that makes you throw your usual rules out the window. "Why yes, we can have gelato for dinner." You know, things like that. This time we threw out pretty much any standard we have at home for transportation safety for our kid (except that we did do several of our trips by boat to avoid buses on the highways in Vietnam). At home we always make sure to have her booster seat if we are going to be in a car, we make her wait for the light at intersections, always cross in a crosswalk, etc. You know, responsible middle-class American parents.

In Cambodia we rode tuk-tuks so many times every day. If you've never seen a tuk-tuk, this is it:

The family on a tuk-tuk in Siem Reap

It is basically a trailer hooked on to the back of a motorbike and then a guy drives you somewhere in the previously described traffic. My daughter loved this more than just about anything else we did on the trip. She begged to take a tuk-tuk every time we left the hotel. And so we did.

At one point during out trip I was telling our daughter about how when I was a kid that we would just pile in the back of a pickup truck but how that wasn't allowed anymore because it wasn't safe. And then in Luang Prabang we went on a hiking and kayaking trip with a guide. And how did we travel the 40 minutes to where we were trekking? In the back of a pickup truck, of course.

When in Rome, I suppose. Even if it is the most dangerous thing you can do.

One tries not to judge the culture of another country while traveling. But on both trips to this part of the world I could not help but think that there must be a decent amount of people who don't like the status quo. There must be a high number of people that have lost children to accidents because of the insane lack of traffic rules that would like to see a change. I just wonder what it will take to change the madness. Looking at the situation it seems impossible to change. But it wasn't that long ago that there weren't any drunk driving laws in the U.S. Or seat belt laws, car seats for kids, and helmet laws.

There is, I discovered, a helmet law in Vietnam that came in to effect just a few years ago. So there seems to be the beginning of an effort to change things there. And I noticed a lot more traffic lights than when we visited before.

Some drivers even stop for them.

Monday, December 02, 2013

The Fake War On Thanksgiving (or: The Hypocrisy of Matt Walsh & Everyone Else)

For some reason this year people were much more upset than they were last year about Walmart and other stores being open on Thanksgiving. There seemed to be a consensus among liberals and conservatives that this was evil and wrong, that people should have the day off to spend time with their families on Thanksgiving. To that end most people posted links on Facebook to articles slamming on Walmart and the other stores who dared to be open on Thanksgiving. One popular one I saw was this one by Matt Walsh, which was posted by many of my well-meaning liberal friends (I have maybe 4 or 5 conservative friends on Facebook, and by "friends" I mean people that I kind of knew in college who I never actually communicate with on Facebook. They are just kind of there.). It s odd that I had never heard of Matt Walsh before but suddenly I have now seen two of his pieces pop up in the last couple of months because they were shared by liberal friends. which is odd since Walsh is a right-wing asshat who basically thinks that "Obamacare" will be the end of Western Civilization and fully supports Creationism being taught in biology class alongside Evolution (one of his more laughable blog posts was his claiming that religion is what started and advanced science throughout history).

Walsh's post tells us all that if we shop on Thanksgiving we are "part of the problem" and goes on to write about the poor single mother who will have to work 14 hours at a register ringing up people's unnecessary shit, among other things. In this article Walsh calls himself a capitalist but not a "consumerist" which is about the stupidest attempt at splitting hairs that I've ever read.

On its surface this diatribe looks like a defense of the working class, so I understand why my liberal friends linked to it on Facebook. But they would be wrong, Matt Walsh cares nothing about the plight of workers.

For some reason this whole idea that everyone should have Thanksgiving off of work began when these stores decided to open up on Thanksgiving. Where was this huge concern for workers who didn't get the day off before this? Walmart, Target, Macy's, JC Penny, Sears; none of these companies were the first ones to ask/make people work on Thanksgiving. Where was all this outrage for the poor Denny's waitresses or the 7-11 clerks? What about all the grocery stores that are open on Thanksgiving?

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Matt Walsh says that people who shop on Thanksgiving are part of the problem, meaning that if nobody shopped these stores wouldn't open. He's certainly right about that. But aren't we also part of the problem if we do just about anything on Thanksgiving that causes the need for people to work?

I would assume, being the Republican-American manly man that he portrays himself to be, that Walsh watched football on Thanksgiving. There were three NFL games on that day and a couple of top level college games. Isn't Walsh "part of the problem" if he watched those games? In addition to the players, coaches, referees, and TV announcers there are the ball boys, equipment managers, trainers, network production assistants, gaffers, boom-mike operators, cameramen, stadium ticket takers, security guards, and the thousands of part-time concession workers, among I'm sure many other types of workers I'm not even thinking of. And in those college games the players are not making any money at all (not counting the scholarship players - which is not all of them - getting a free college education).

Hell, if he turned on his TV at all he is part of the problem. There are a lot of technicians and other staff needed to run a TV station even if you are just airing reruns. And did he watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade with his family? You know, tradition. Well, there are a lot of people who had to give up the holiday with their family so he could sit on his couch and watch the parade with his. That includes a lot of cops and other first responders who would have the day off if they didn't have an event with millions of people in the middle of New York City

If you used your computer at all you were making somebody work. Despite a lot of people's belief, the internet is not magic and run on its own. I wonder how many people who railed against the stores being open that day ended up ordering something on Amazon? Amazon's warehouses were staffed that day (and don't even get me tarted on the shitty business practices and anti workers' rights attitude of Amazon) because people go online to order stuff on Thanksgiving. Again, the internet is not magic, there are actual people pulling shit off of shelves to ship to you.

I took public transportation on Thursday, meaning I'm responsible for bus drivers, train operators, station agents, mechanics, switch operators, and many others having to work. Even if you drove your car and think that means nobody was affected, well, there are a lot of tow truck drivers, toll road attendants and gas stations clerks having to work because of you.

I read that something around 30 million people ate out or got take out on Thanksgiving. They made a lot of waitstaff, cooks, busboys and delivery drivers work that day.

What about people who fly home on the holiday? That's a lot of flight attendants, pilots, baggage handlers, counter agents and others who have to work. I suppose we should close the airports on Thanksgiving. What would we do about the international flights that day? Should we not allow any international flights that day to land in the U.S? Even though they don't celebrate Thanksgiving?

I could go on but I'm sure you see my point. Fact is, a lot of people have to work on Thanksgiving. Some are for good reasons (ER docs, police, fire department, etc) and some are for stupid reasons (cheap plastic shit or needing to pick up a can of cranberry sauce). And it is almost impossible that any of us are not part of the reason why. Anyone who calls out the idiots who go shopping on Thanksgiving causing the need for people to work is a big goddamned hypocrite.

For people like Walsh this has nothing to do with the plight of the underclass even though that's the terms he tries to frame it. No, it is about the world conforming to the way he thinks it is supposed to work. People should hang out with their family, eat turkey, watch football, and adhere to whatever the hell he means by "tradition."

Well fuck Matt Walsh. Just like how he thinks every child in America should be taught his Judeo-Christian idea of how the world was created (which is complete and utter bullshit to begin with) this is just another way he wants to tel everyone else how they should live their lives. Well, I'm a vegetarian, I hate American football with a passion, and my family sucks (except for my sister). So I pretty much have no interest in his traditions.

When I was a young man living in Seattle and making my living as a barista (I know, it's a cliché) I never had the day off work. And that's exactly the way I liked it. I would work at my cart in front of the Safeway and make more in tips than I usually made in two weeks. Then I would go home and watch crap on TV while drinking beer. And that's the way I liked it. I'm not saying that everyone who had to work on Thursday wanted to work that day, I'm sure some wanted to be home with their families. But some people don't give a shit about these holidays and how dare anyone presume to tell people what they should be doing on them.

Thing is, I did spend my holiday with my family. Just my wife and daughter. We went over to a tree lot and bought our holiday tree (yea, that's right Matt Walsh you right-wing Christian douchebag, I called it a holiday tree), which also contributed to more people working, and just hung out together. But I don't really think about it as a "family" thing. My wife is a super smart and hot woman who I like having around and my daughter is an awesome kid who cracks me up and amazes me. I don't really think about it as some sort of tradition or family thing to do. My wife had four days off so we all got to hang out together. It doesn't matter at all that it was Thanksgiving or in April.

The difference between the likes of Matt Walsh and myself is that he's concerned that his single mother working behind the counter get this one day off (unpaid), whereas I'm concerned that that single mother has to have two jobs because Sears or Walmart or JC Penney doesn't pay a living wage, so she doesn't get to see her kids pretty much the whole year. And those kids are going to do poorly in school as they don't have great parental involvement because Mom has to do everything she can just to keep a roof over their head. If that single mom could pay the bills with just one job and have time to spend with her kids all year long, but in return had to work Thanksgiving, how much do you want to bet that she would make that trade?

Walsh telling us to give them Thanksgiving is the same as "let them eat cake."

That's where I think my liberal friends are misguided to take up this argument.

Look, Walmart is an evil company. They have been known to lock overnight workers in the stores, they cheat workers out of overtime pay, they pay substandard wages, they offer crappy health insurance plans that are expensive and don't do anything, they wrestle tax breaks out of communities and then ruin small businesses. The heirs to the Walton family fortune have more wealth than the bottom 40% of Americans (which includes pretty much everyone who works for Walmart).

Being open on Thanksgiving is probably the least evil thing that Walmart does. And to focus on this one issue obscures the real problem that we should be focusing on - namely workers rights.

Getting Walmart or these other stores to close on that one day won't change the fact the employees don't get paid a living wage and so many have to use food stamps.

If and when Walmart employees finally unionize there is no way the union leaders would try to negotiate closing on Thanksgiving. They would negotiate a volunteer and seniority system to decide who works. They would demand overtime pay of double-time or at least time-and-a-half. This is on tip of the fact that they would already have demanded a living wage and real benefits like health insurance and paid vacations.

These are the real issues that are being obscured by this "war on Thanksgiving" argument. People like Matt Walsh don't give a shit about these employees the other 364 days of the year. They don't think Walmart needs to pay a better wage or offer benefits. They don't have any problem at all with Walmart's business practices. They are not even arguing for a paid day off for these workers, just the day off. Unpaid is not a problem with them.

I don't shop at Walmart. Not on Thanksgiving, not on Black Friday (I stay the hell away from any store on that day), not ever. They are bad for workers and they are bad for the economy. I don't order from Amazon for the same reason.

Costco is not an awesome company because they close on Thanksgiving, they are an awesome company because they lead their industry in pay and benefits.

The whole year matters, not just the holidays. We lose sight of that by focusing on this one issue. That's why I think this is just as dumb as the war on Christmas.

And just like in the war on Christmas, I refuse to cede the moral high ground to jerks like Matt Walsh.

I'm disappointed by the progressives who have allowed themselves to be drawn in to this narrow issue framed in the way conservatives want it to be framed.

Monday, November 18, 2013

White Parent's Burden

I've said before that I don't want this to become a "daddy blog" because parenting blogs are basically the worst kind of blog in the world. But it looks like I'll be spending the next four months or so obsessing about where my daughter will be going to school next year. So this is what's on my mind right now.

We got back from our SE Asia trip last week and pretty much immediately leapt in to the beginning of our kindergarten odyssey. Applications submitted and first school open house visited.

Four years ago my wife was weighing job offers and it came down to us staying in New York at the institution she had just spent three years in a research training program or accept an attending physician/faculty appointment in Chicago. Moving to Chicago would involve more money and a lower cost of living so those were certainly factors to consider. But we loved living in New York so those things alone did not really sway us. A likely bigger factor was that we were new parents and we knew we were only a few year away from having to navigate the New York school situation. To hear New York parents talk about what it was like dealing with the school choice situation it seemed that they would have preferred being water-boarded.

So off to Chicago we went.

And now it's time to deal with the Chicago schools. One plus from the move already has been that we were able to delay this for a year since New York has a later birthday cutoff date for starting school. Our daughter would already be in kindergarten in NYC. There are a lot of conflicting opinions about whether it's better to start school earlier or later, I just know I'm happy I got an extra year before I had to deal with this shit.

Our first school open house was an experience with mixed feelings.

Excited, because this school looks to be fantastic. We fell in love with the principal, the kindergarten teacher we met, the curriculum, the percentile where the students test scores sit, and the amazingly high percentage of their students who move on to "selective" high schools in he city. It is also not that far from our apartment.

Then it was time to get depressed. This fantastic school is a citywide magnet school. They have two classes per grade of about 30 students each. So there will be 60 slots for next year's kindergarten. Siblings of current students at the school get first dibs and the principal said that they will take around 30 of the slots on average. So that leaves around 30 slots to be filled by completely random lottery. And every year about 1,500 kids or more apply to kindergarten at this school. So my daughter has about a 1-in-50 chance at this school, at best. I won't be holding my breath.

I remember the parent giving us our tour saying that when her kid got the spot at the school it was "like we won the lottery." I'm not sure how she didn't seem to get that she literally won the lottery.

We still have other magnet schools to visit as well as a couple of selective elementary schools. Selective meaning that your kid has to test in to it. How exactly they test a 5-year-old to see if they are super smart I'm not really sure, and no other parents seem to know either, even if they have had their kids do it already. At some point we will be given a time to take our daughter down to where they do the testing and someone will take her in to a room while we wait. And that's pretty much all we know from other parents. It seems the test involves giving your child a memory-erasing mind sweep at the end of it because they're not telling their parents what went on in there.

We haven't visited the selective school close to us yet but we're in love with it on paper. Chicago Magazine calls it one of the best schools in the city and their test scores are though the roof (as someone who despises standardized testing it is weird to be looking at this data, but they don't give you much else to consider). But of course they are starting with the kids they've deemed to be smarty pants anyway. Unlike he magnet schools I have no idea what my daughter's chances are to get in to this school. Sure, I assume she's a genius, as does her mother and her grandparents. But we might be a little more biased than the testing person will be about her.

All of this has causes my wife and I to have conversations about what we will do if she doesn't get in to any of these schools. The elementary school that is our default neighborhood school (the one you are guaranteed a spot in based on where you live) is a decent one, not considered one of the best in the city but certainly solid. And it is in a brand new building that we can walk to in ten minutes.

But in trying to figure out what is best for our kid my wife and I chatted about another option: moving. We rent, so picking up and moving is no problem for us. And it turns out that the school considered the best neighborhood school in the city is just north of us. All we have to do to be in the boundary for that school is move slightly more than 1/2-mile. Not the drastic move to the 'burbs like many middle-class white people make - we are dedicated urbanites, the suburbs suck out your spirit and crush it like a paper cup - but still. I don't think it was that long ago that my friends who became parents at a younger age than me would ask about schools in our neighborhood and my response would be, "how should I know." I didn't imagine I would become this parent. Of course it wasn't that long before I became a parent that I didn't even imagine I would become one at all. And now I'm not only a father but a stay-at-home variety at that.

Whether this is something we will actually do (move for a better school) I'm not sure but I can't believe this is where my life is now.

As stressful as this is turning out to be for me I can't even begin to imagine what it is like for a resident of this city who does not have the socioeconomic status that we do. If we don't get in to one of the test-in or magnet schools our fallback is still pretty good, and if we don't like that we have the resources to make a change. A low-income black parent in a crappy neighborhood has very few options if they want a better life for their kid. If they don't test-in to one of the gifted or classical schools then they count on the luck of the draw for a magnet school, with its long odds. Failing that they are left with a shitty neighborhood school with such a high population of impoverished kids that it is impossible for the school to succeed.

No matter what happens to us my daughter will not walk to school through a gang-infested, high-crime neighborhood. She'll be in a solid school even if we don't win a lottery or test-in spot. She does not have parents who have to work two jobs each to make ends meet and would have no time to help with homework or be involved in her school. She has a stay-at-home parent who will be able to pick her up every day and not even have to do after school programs. It is something I'm trying to keep in mind as I stress about this.

Like any parent I want to try to do the best for my kid but not lose sight of how bad it is not. Too many parents in the situation we are in like to complain as if they are being shoved aside in favor of under-performing minority kids. Without explaining too much how it works, Chicago has a tier system to be sure of diversity in the test-in and magnet schools, grouping students in four different socioeconomic groups based on zip code (we're in the highest one) so, yes, kids from a lower tier can get in to a test-in school with a lower score than some kids from the higher tier. Many upper and upper-middle class white parents howl about this as being unfair. I call them assholes.

These are people who live in an area with good neighborhood schools and many of them can afford to send their kids to a great private school if they so choose. Poor people have to win a long-shot lottery or their kids' futures are statistically fucked and these wealthier people want to bitch about fair?

When you make a choice to live in the city one of those reasons should be for the diversity. Without a system in place for the schools to achieve a diverse population then our kids will grow up around just a bunch of other well-off white kids. I would move to the suburbs if I wanted that. A big reason for wanting my daughter to get in to one of the magnet/test-in schools is that they are more diverse than our neighborhood school options.

I understand wanting to do the best for your kid as much as anybody. My school life growing up was awful all the way from first grade through high school graduation and almost every adult in my life failed me along the way. I want my kid to have it better than that.

I imagine that most poor minority parents want the same. They should have just as good a chance as me to achieve it.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013


I love to travel. There is really no way to say that without it sounding like an understatement. Just no way. I love almost every aspect of travel. I say almost because there are two main parts I don't like - airport security and coach seating on airplanes. Those are probably the only negatives for me and ones that are an easy trade-off for the reward of going someplace awesome. Everything else I love. I love the planning. Sometimes I think I love the planning more than the actual trip. I will spend hours upon hours researching my next trip and be happy as a lark doing it. Pouring over maps, guidebooks, websites like Tripadvisor and travel blogs. Searching for the perfect hotels. Figuring costs by going through the exchange rates. But my favorite part of planning is figuring out the logistics of transportation. I spend so much time on sites like The Man in Seat 61 figuring out train routes in various countries that I can tell you how to get around in places I've never even been.

Trains are, of course, the preferred method of travel in any trip I take. Some of my travel ideas come from particular trains I want to take and not necessarily the destination itself. I absolutely want to take the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok someday, and I have no idea what the hell is in Vladivostok. I just know it would be seven days and six nights aboard one of the most legendary trains in the world. (I seriously just got lost for about an hour on the Seat 61 site after looking up the Trans-Siberian travel times, surfing around that section and the China pages, daydreaming)

No matter how big a country is or how much ground I plan to cover in a given trip, using a plane to get from one place to another is the very last choice. It's bad enough I had to spend 7-18 hours on a planes to get to the place I'm going, last thing I want to do is get on more while I'm there. Not always possible, but if there is a train, boat, van, or bus to get me someplace I'll choose those over a shorter plane ride. A bus ride lasting longer than about seven or eight hours will likely lose to a plane but that is a rare exception. Even an arduous journey on another mode of transportation is more favorable than a plane if for no other reason than it will always be more interesting. Nothing interesting ever happens on a plane. It is just a means to an end.

My obsession for planning trips means I am constantly ahead of myself. My wife, daughter, and I are going to SE Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) in less than three weeks but I have already done some preliminary research for Russia, which may be our next trip and China, which is on our list but we still have no real idea when we may try that one. I've even started looking at returning to Germany for the traditional Christmas markets - for maybe going in 2014.

It has gotten to the point where I will help plan trips for my friends, and I love to do it for them. If I had gotten in to this at a younger age I would have gotten some job in the travel industry. Not that anyone can really make money in the travel agent business anymore. Or I would have taken better care to learning how to be a decent writer while I was in college so I could have been a travel writer. Matt Gross had my dream job as the Frugal Traveler at the New York Times and for some reason he gave it up! Are you kidding me?

And I love to travel with just about anyone. Friends, limited family (pretty much my sister), alone, with my wife, and now with both my wife and daughter. Traveling with a young child poses many challenges but you would be surprised in how many ways it can be even cooler than the childless carefree ways of youth. For one thing she points out things we may have just walked by and not noticed. And she makes us slow down and go at a more relaxed pace (my wife and I both have a tendency to rush to see as much as we can in as many places and can get to) because it is hard to rush when you are dragging along a 2, 3, or 4-year-old on a trip.

There are people who tell me that one of the things they love about traveling is coming home, and how much they appreciate home after taking a trip. I don't know what the hell these people are talking about. I always get depressed going up to the U.S. passport control and then they tell me, "Welcome home." Blech, I want to be back on my trip. There have only been two exceptions to this. First was when I went to Taiwan for work and stayed a few extra days to hike around. My wife was at home because she was over seven months pregnant and couldn't go with me so I missed her a lot. The second was earlier this year when I went on a two-week trip to Europe with friends. Turned out to be too long to be away from my wife and daughter and the last three or four days I just ached to see them. But in both those cases what I really wanted was them to be with me, not for me to be at home.

Thing is, as much as I've loved several places I've lived in the States, like Seattle, New York, and Chicago; none of them even come close to comparing to such cities as Munich, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Edinburgh, London, etc. I guess I just love European Socialism and the European pace.

But more than the love of a specific place is the desire to see it all. I want to go everywhere. I don't know where this wanderlust comes from but I know I'm not unique. Isn't this what humans have always done, tried to find out what more is out there?

But I come from a family that has anything but wanderlust. I've got Midwestern aunts and uncles that wouldn't even dare to go to New York or San Francisco, much less somewhere outside the country, save maybe fishing in Canada. And others look at us like we're crazy when my wife and I mention all the places we've taken our daughter. There is some bizarre school of thought among some parents that you can't travel with kids outside of national parks and Disney World. I sure as hell am happy that my kid has seen Istanbul instead of Orlando.

My only regret is not traveling more when I was younger. I should have backpacked through Europe in my twenties when sleeping in tents or cheap hostels would have been fun instead of uncomfortable. I thought I needed more money to do it and I was always very poor at the time. I could have saved up for plane tickets instead of buying weed. I also should have done a year abroad in college. I had some idea that interrupting my theatre education would be bad for my career opportunities. I ended up without a theatre career anyway, so that decision will always haunt me.

I don't understand people that don't have wanderlust. I can't fathom not wanting to travel the world.

I guess it is this: You have only one life and there is only one world. See it.

(This picture of my daughter being wowed by converging trams in Prague pretty much captures everything I love about traveling with her)

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Stupidity of the Parents vs. the Childless Wars

I know I said in my first post in restarting this thing that I hope this doesn't devolve in to a daddy blog but then here I go right out of the gate with parenting (or not parenting) as a topic. I read this piece on line that a friend - one of my favorite people and a great mom - linked to on Facebook. It was one of the stupidest tirades about parenting I've ever read so I really need to attack the douche bag who wrote it. And point out why he's so wrong.

His name is Matt Walsh and I'd never heard of the guy before this but apparently he thinks he's famous. He has a talk radio show - same as about a thousand other white males - and this blog where he had this post.

From the title of the post you think he has a beef with parents who don't control their kids but the opposite is the case. He has a problem with childless people with opinions. I found from looking through a little of his blog that he does this a lot with his post titles, making them the opposite of the point he is really making. So he also thinks he's clever.

The gist of his post here is about a kid having a meltdown in a grocery store and a childless guy has a problem with it:

You glanced toward the mother and the kid, then at me, rolled your eyes and said in a loud voice: “Man, some people need to learn how to control their f**king kids.” The lady could definitely hear you, but I guess that was your intention. You had this expression like you were expecting a high five. “Yeah, put it here, dude, you really told that young mother and her three year old off! Nice!” Is that how you thought I’d respond? What is it about me that made you think I would react that way? You’re the second stranger in the last few months to say something like that to me about a mom with a tantrum-throwing toddler.
Yeah, I didn't respond the way you anticipated. Instead, I offered my own helpful suggestion: “Man, some people need to learn how to shut their mouths, watch their language, and mind their own business.”

The rest of the piece kind of goes off on a tangent about childless people being clueless, as well as older parents who try to tell younger parents how things were "in my day."

On the surface of this argument you could see some merit. I hate people telling me how to parent and it is amazing how many people try to do that. But that isn't what is happening in the examples this guy gives.

First, about the situation above. Beyond how much I quoted there, Walsh goes on to praise the mother of the tantrum-throwing child for staying calm and poised and holding her ground to teach sonny a lesson about not getting what he wants and making him help pick up the display he knocked over. He has overwhelming sympathy for this mother and none for the other shoppers in the store. And that's my main issue with his point of view here. Many parents have this completely one-sided idea that everyone in the world need to respect them as parents and accommodate their children but they don't have to do anything to respect or accommodate others in the world.

Walsh says, "...the peanut gallery probably expects you to drop all of your groceries and immediately run into the parking lot, so as to save them from having to deal with the spectacle."

Well, yes! Goddammit yes you fucking douche! This is what enrages me about other parents, this idea that you shouldn't deal with your child's meltdown in a way that limits the intrusion in to others' lives. I understand there are teachable moments in a kid's life, you have to put your foot down and if they are going to have a tantrum about it fine, "have your tantrum but you are still not getting that toy/food/etc. that you want." But the rest of the world should not have to endure your child. You remove them from that place and make them have their tantrum someplace where it inconveniences the least amount of people. It is not rocket science. And I'm not saying you do it because it is embarrassing to you to have people judge you for having a tantrum-throwing child, you do it because your child is not other people's problem.

If an adult is causing a disturbance in a store it is applauded if they are asked to leave. But for some reason rules go out the window when it is a child, be it how they are allowed to act in public or parents being allowed to smack them in ways that would get a person arrested if they did it to an adult. The "rights" of parents trumps all else in the world even when it infringes on others. Walsh is right in that camp, scolding the childless guy for using bad language and having an opinion, while defending a woman who was allowing her child to disturb others. It is a prime example of an asshole parent. You are supposed to put up with my screaming kid and I have no requirement to care about your feelings or rights but you better not use bad words around my kid.

See my point? These types of parents expect accommodation but will make none for others. These are the types who will walk three-abreast on the sidewalk pushing strollers and not even move an inch to let other people by even though they are taking up the whole sidewalk.

I've seen even friends of mine act like this. I was once in a restaurant with friends with a kid who must have been about two-years-old at the time. The kid started to freak a little bit when they were making him stop doing something he wanted to do but they wanted him to stop. They really let him go on a while before his dad finally took him outside. His mother said she didn't even get phased when her kid acts like that and just lets him go on. Oblivious to the people around her and apparently proud of it.

And really, Walsh felt the need to scold someone about their language? It really is a one-sided street with these types. My kid can scream and cry in a public place and you should shut your trap about it, but don't you dare use any potty words around my kid. Fucking hypocritical bullshit. I don't understand parents who get mad at people who use profanity. Your child lives in the world, there are adult humans in the world, adult humans use profanity. Get over it. It is about the least bad thing for someone to do around your kids.

And using "f**king" instead of just typing out "fucking" is so goddamn childish and insulting to your readers intelligence. Or is he trying to protect the fragile minds of the three-year-olds reading his blog?

The other example Walsh gives in being told how to parent (again, no example he gives is actually anyone telling parents how to do their job) is an older man saying about crying babies in church that "back when our children were babies, you didn't have this problem.” Walsh responds with a snarky,"apparently babies didn't cry in the 50′s." Which, of course, is not at all what the guy was saying. I think he was saying that people got up and walked outside with their crying baby back in his day. Whether or not that's true I don't know but it is a valid point.

Walsh is one of those right-wing tea party evangelicals, which I discovered quickly after looking around his blog a little bit. He is typical of this type, he believes what he believes even if facts show he is wrong. He had one post about Christianity being pro-science - even having invented and advanced science, whereas atheism has done nothing for science - while arguing that religion should be in science class (which means teaching creationism alongside evolution). It is because of guys like him that we have the Parents Television Council that tries to get rid of everything on TV that's not kid-friendly. Because what adults want doesn't matter.

Whenever I hear or read asshats like this I always hear Helen Lovejoy's voice screaming, "Won't somebody please think of the children?"

Then I hear George Carlin responding, "Fuck the children."

I'm not saying there aren't real jerks out there in the world of childless people. Certainly there are. But I don't think believing that you shouldn't have to deal with screaming children when you don't have any makes you a jerk.

A few years ago in New York there was some media coverage (possibly media-created, most definitely media-fueled) about young Brooklyn hipsters in a battle with Brooklyn parents over the issue of kids in bars. It was stupid and a lot of childless people were bitching about just the mere presence of children in the bars whether or not those kids were behaving properly. Parents don't give up their right to have fun when they decide to breed. There are people out there who don't think I should be taking my four-year-old daughter to concerts either (yes I use ear protection for her since you are wondering) but I don't care. People thinking they can live in a world they don't have to ever see children is just as dumb as wanting to live in one without black people or Jews.

It can go both ways I know. Everyone seems to want to feel that they are superior in their choice, they made the right one by having or not having kids. It's a stupid battle that comes out of a complete lack of understanding those on the other side. And it is stoked by shitheads like Matt Walsh.

Childless people who want to live in a world where parents at least try to not let their kid be other people's problem does not make them jerks. But being a fan of Matt Walsh does.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Let's Try This Again

I've decided to try starting up my blog again.

Why? Good question. I'm not really sure, but sometimes I feel like I've got something to say and just posting short blurbs on Facebook just seems pointless. Not that a blog can't be completely pointless as well. I don't know, I guess putting yourself out there in the world with your thoughts feels like you're doing something more than annoying your friends with your rants. Or at least something different.

I just have to cut down on Facebook. Facebook was great when I first got on a few years ago. Finding long lost friends is a fantastic thing and the re-connection with some of them has not been limited to the virtual world but actual real-world reunions. So for that it has been great. But I've had the feeling for a long time that Facebook has been making me depressed. Or at least more depressed. I thought it was just me but my therapist (yes, my therapist) tells me she has a stack of literature about studies that are showing that Facebook users are more prone to depression, jealousy, and a host of other negative emotions.

I don't know why this happens, but it does. I suppose it depends on the kind of person you are (but if the early research is correct, maybe not) and in the matrix of glass-half-full vs. glass-half-empty I've always been a glass-is-full-of-piss kind of person. Everyone on Facebook leads more exciting lives than me. Whenever someone posts what they are doing I always think, "Why don't I get to do that?" Two mutual friends hang out with each other and post pictures of it, why didn't they invite me? Somebody goes on a cool trip, damn why don't I get to go there?

I also get in to weird snippy fights with people I adore. When someone post something that is just factually wrong I can't seem to help myself. Why can't people check Snopes before passing shit along? It takes like 30 seconds. People seem truly offended by the simple fact of correcting them. So maybe when friends post crazy or wrong stuff I just write about it on here. It doesn't seem like that would make it better for your friends to have their points of view attacked more publicly but it seems that people take their Facebook "walls" very personally.

I think I'm on Facebook too much. And I'm not even on as much as a lot of other people. Since I don't have a dumb phone (as I like to call them) I'm only on when I home. But it is still more than I should be.

Besides, I kind of miss blogs. I really enjoyed writing this when I was doing it a couple times a week or more and I never really cared if anyone was reading it. And there are a lot of people out there who should still be writing blogs instead of hanging out on Facebook. My friends Joe and Jose used to both write great blog posts (being people who actually write, unlike me) yet neither one does it anymore. It was always more interesting than what they write on Facebook. I think the platform does make a difference.

Something's got to give for me. I need to start looking at my life for what it is instead of what it is not. Facebook doesn't seem to help me do that, not that that is its job. Why am I jealous of other people? I take at least one overseas trip a year, this year I'll take two. I've got a beautiful smart wife and a great daughter. My wife makes enough money for us to live well. While we're not rich, we're better off than most. It afforded me the opportunity to quit my full time job and be a stay-at-home-dad which means I get to hang out with my kid more than most people in our modern society of two working parents and full time daycare/preschool. I've got great friends. That I don't see them enough is not just their fault, it is on me to make sure we are seeing each other on more than Facebook.

So what will my blog be about? I don't really know but I didn't really know when I wrote it before and that seemed to work for me. I hope it doesn't devolve to a daddy blog because there is nothing more annoying than mommy or daddy blogs. Or more pointless and boring. I hope to write about my travels because I've always wanted to do that and I love trip planning including helping other people plan trips. And of course about shit that annoys me. And stuff that thrills me.

But here's where I'm at:

A little over a year ago as I approached my 42nd birthday it seemed that I was finally in full-blown midlife crisis mode. So I started going to therapy. The whole doom and gloom of midlife was then not helped by ending up in the hospital with an irregular heartbeat (atrial fibrillation as it turned out) about three weeks after that birthday. That day I decided to quit my job, something my wife and I had been talking about possibly doing for a while. I didn't need any more motivation after that.

And that was supposed to make things great, but then our apartment building caught on fire. We lived in a hotel for six weeks. We had to move from our place due to our scumbag landlord's inability to return the building to livability or keep it up to fire code. Moved to a much more expensive place after just having given up my income. Had things stolen from us by either the movers, the fire-damage cleaners, or the sketchy contractor who wasn't done working on our new place by the time we moved in. Sketchy contractor and idiot heating/plumbing guy kept fucking up the air conditioner installation job, breaking it twice while hooking up the machine as we had two different heat waves.

So my stress was pretty high. My wife's stress was pretty high. Stress is not great for marriage. You might even say it's bad.

I was self medicating with alcohol. Also not good for a marriage. Or a liver.

Hopefully we have turned a corner. I'd like to think our marriage is stronger than ever. I hope she does too.

I've not always been that person who sees the good through all the shit that is happening to his life. But I need to start learning how.

Hopefully this is one small way to help make that happen.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Downfall Of A Giant Ego Named Mike Daisey

Seems that New York theater's wunderkind Mike Daisey got caught having fabricated large parts of his current hit show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. He was caught because This American Life aired an excerpt of the show in January and he, presumably for the first time in his life, got fact checked. And not only was his show found to be filled with lies, he lied to Ira Glass and the TAL producer while they were doing said fact checking. Not just sticking to his claims of his stories being true but also lying about the name of the translator he used while in China and even claiming her phone number no longer worked. An avalanche of lies in a desperate attempt to cover up the original lies. Unfortunately for TAL they aired the excerpt before they discovered they had been duped. But at least they did finally discover the truth and made an immediate move to remedy the situation and offered a retraction.

Before we go any further, a disclosure of my bias when writing about this: I can't stand Mike Daisey. I knew him years ago in Seattle when we were involved in the same theater company, I directed him in one show, assistant directed him in another, and was around when he began his monologue shows. He is the most shameless self-promoter I've ever met in my life, is amazingly self-aggrandizing, and has an ego that outweighs even his 300-something pound frame. (My main reason for turning down his friend request a couple of years ago on Facebook was basically because I knew his sole reason for using Facebook is so he can promote himself rather than actually using it to catch up and stay in touch with old friends.) And his shows, monologues sold as true experiences from his life that has made him very successful and mildly famous, never passed the smell test in my mind.

I have been telling people for a long time that Mike Daisey's shows were bullshit but not too many people seemed to take me seriously. I think there were many who thought I was just jealous of his success but that's not the case. I've never been jealous of impressing wine-spritzer-drinking, upper-middle class white liberals with shallow, pointless shows that they are convinced are the deepest pieces of art they've ever seen. I certainly didn't succeed in my theatre career and eventually moved on from it, but I never wanted what he's got. I would admit that it annoys me that I know so many more talented and more honest writers/performers who have gotten nowhere while he succeeds in selling his drivel as "provocative art" to moneyed theater companies around the country.

But several people I knew in theater from my time in Seattle have stayed fans and friends with Daisey. I don't get it. I suppose there are many people who find his shows witty and entertaining. I never did, but that's just personal taste. People like what they like. The real issue here is credibility and Mike Daisey's lack of it.

Since getting caught in his fabrications he posted a statement on his website. It's fairly sort so I'll post the whole thing here.

"This American Life" has raised questions about the adaptation of AGONY/ECSTASY we created for their program. Here is my response:

I stand by my work. My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity. Certainly, the comprehensive investigations undertaken by The New York Times and a number of labor rights groups to document conditions in electronics manufacturing would seem to bear this out.

What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic ­- not a theatrical ­- enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China.

There are several issues with this statement. First off, really Mike, you're sticking by and claiming to be proud of a show that has been exposed as a fraud? Are you kidding me? And you say allowing your monologue to air on This American Life is your only regret. What about including some of those same falsehoods in an op-ed in the New York Times? Don't you regret that, too? Probably not. The New York Times does, though. They've removed the offending paragraph and posted a statement with the piece on-line. What about all of the TV, radio and print interviews you've done with these personal experience stories as the base of your supposed "expertise" on the subject of workers' rights in China? Fact is, you did a hell of a lot more media appearances than just TAL, things that had nothing to do with using a "dramatic license" and you never once clarified that there were parts of your show that were not true. Your claim that the show has integrity is laughable. You say your ONLY regret was letting TAL run an excerpt of your show, doing your best to make yourself seem naive about this thing called the media - or that you were even aware that TAL is a news show - but don't address the fact you lied out your ass to them during the fact checking process.

The most infuriating part of your statement is the horribly (but typical) self-aggrandizing claim that your show is responsible for sparking a "growing storm of attention and concern" about these issues. Maybe the kind of people who pay $80 to see pretentious theater were completely unaware of the fact that the oppressive regime of China has slave labor conditions in factories that make products we buy but not those of us that actually pay attention to what is going on in the world. This issue has been in the media for a long time. You jumped on a bandwagon. And you did it for less than altruistic reasons.

OK, I'll stop pretending to talk to Mike Daisey now. Thing is, this is typical Mike Daisey moral rationalizing. He got caught in his lies so he plays the theater card, using the catch-all phrase "dramatic license." He tends to redefine his work to whatever is most convenient for him at the time. He calls himself an actor until he wants to separate himself from theater, then he calls himself a monologist. He's denied what he does is theater until he needs it for cover. Early in his career he denied that he was influenced by Spalding Grey, claiming it was his own thing. Later, after Gray committed suicide, Daisey published a tribute to him that went on about Gray's influence on his own work. Not coincidentally I'm sure, he had a show opening about that time.

Mike Daisey will use whatever he can to promote himself and he always has. His "crusade" against Apple and Chinese labor issues is no different. I never bought for a minute that it was about anything but advancing his career and heightening his fame. He couldn't give a shit about Chinese workers.

I can't believe no one, especially producers who paid for it, didn't have more suspicions about this show from the beginning. How could it be that I seem to be the only person who thought his work smelled of garbage? All of it. And this one seemed to have the potential to be the worst one of all. When I first read about The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs the description said that Daisey had asked the Chinese government permission to go to the factories and interview workers but they said no. So he decided to go and do it secretly. A 300+ pound white American in an Asian country with an oppressive regime and we're told that he succeeded in staying under the radar. Really? How is it that anyone bought this shit?

As I suspected, what Daisey basically did was spin a tale based on previously published media reports about conditions in Chinese tech factories and packaged it all as his own personal experiences. He's only admitted to the specific things he got caught lying about (and has now excised them form the show for the remaining performances at the Public Theater while also adding a prologue about this being dramatic piece.") but I, like a lot of people now, find it hard to believe that TAL caught the only lies in the show. Surely there are many, many more. In this show and others. Let's not forget that Daisey has always marketed his shows as memoirs of personal experiences, it is the basis of his entire success.

The Seattle playwright Paul Mullin has posted a lot on his Facebook page about this. We are actually not friends on Facebook but have several mutual friends that have commented on his posts, which is why I saw them. I kind of knew Paul in passing in my Seattle theater days in the 90s but I was in one of his short pieces once and we've had maybe a handful of short conversations. But I do have a lot of respect for him as a theater artist and writer. He made this comment in response to something someone wrote about why Daisy didn't just sell his work as fiction:

"...sadly I think it's as simple as fiction doesn't get Frey to Oprah or Daisey to Ira. And Frey and Daisey damn well know it."

I think he really nailed it with that comment. I know there are people who think Mike Daisey is witty and entertaining regardless of whether or not his shows are true. But I think they're wrong. Daisey's whole aesthetic depends on the audience believing these events really happened to him. Without that his stories are a lot less interesting and nobody knows that more than Mike Daisey. There is a big difference between telling you a story about a guy who got struck by lightning on a road trip or telling you about when I was on this road trip and I got struck by lightning. This is a claim in Mike Daisey's first show. Like most of the material in that show I didn't buy it when I saw it opening night. I didn't even buy most of those stories when I heard them months earlier over drinks at The Frontier Room. He rang false to me from the beginning. If Mike had stuck to stories that happened when he was supposed to be alone this may have never happened to him. He made the mistake of doing it in a situation that could be followed up on. I suppose getting away with it for so long caused an amazing amount of hubris.

Dammit, context matters. If an entire body of work is presented as fact then it should be fact. Not some of it. Not most of it. All of it. And you don't get to change the context after the fact.

Hopefully this will cause a closer look at all his previous work and it is long overdue. I'm not sure what will come of this. It is quite possible that he comes out of it more famous and more in demand. He will certainly do his best, opportunist that he is, to make that the case. Remember folks, Karma isn't real no matter how much we wish it so. But what I hope happens is a complete repudiation of him and his work. No theater should ever produce him again and anyone that has him booked for upcoming shows should cancel just like TAL did for the Chicago performance they were sponsoring.

I'm not sure what The Public theater will do. Their current public statements of support and the editing of his show to excise the discovered lies may just be an attempt to save face. Maybe after the show closes they will wash their hands of him and publicly acknowledge they never should have produced his work. One can hope. If I ran that company I would demand he return all the money.

It would be nice to see all the media outlets that brought him on their shows and treated him like an expert on the topic of slave-wage labor, like Bill Maher, will offer apologies to their audiences. It does look like at least the New York Times will likely never let him write another op-ed in their paper, though I guess you can't be too sure seeing how they let Ross Douthat bend the truth week after week.

He also released a book based on his show about his three years working at Amazon.com in Seattle. It was sold as a non-fiction title. I imagine there may be someone finally taking a longer look at that, especially over at the Amazon board room.

Maybe there will be even more repercussions on the stolen material front. It is looking like some of the stories that Daisey sold as his own experience were based on information from work done by actual journalist. I'm fairly uneducated in the legal qualifications for something to be plagiarism or copyright infringement but hopefully all the reporters out there who wrote about Foxconn and other Chinese factories are looking at the script for Daisey's show and seeing if they have any case for suing his ass for stealing their intellectual property.

You may be wondering if this matters or if it is that big of a deal. It does and it is. When Mike Daisey made the decision to use oppressed workers' plights for his own personal gain - especially in making false accusations against the factory owners when there were plenty of real ones to use - he hurt the credibility of a worthy movement. There are people on the ground doing real work on this cause and now they may have been tainted by Daisey's credibility problems since he tried to make himself a prominent figure on this issue. Who knows how far their hard work has been set back? Look at how unions in our own country have been easily painted as corrupt organizations run by mobsters because of those who decided to use labor organizations for their own agendas.

One of Mike Daisey's excuses to This American Life after he got caught was that he took shortcuts (his word for his lies) in his "passion to be heard."

This reminded me of Newt Gingrich's reasoning that he committed adultery because he loved his country so much.

And just like Gingrich, the real reason Mike Daisey did it is because he's an despicable narcissist.